Unless you find yourself at a flea market, rummage sale or some other place where second-hand goods are exchanged, you probably don’t haggle. Few of us would consider dickering about the price of goods in retail establishments, and bargaining is certainly out of the question at chain stores.
This wasn’t always so. Nineteenth-century customers haggled and bartered over just about everything, managing to bring order to a seemingly chaotic commercial system. Customers lacking hard currency (a common problem) routinely exchanged eggs, butter or even services for dry goods as disparate as flour and pieces of china. The price of goods also depended on how one was paying -- with cash or on credit -- and whether one had a favorable relationship with a particular store clerk.
But bartering and haggling, especially in urban areas, began to lose favor with the rise of so-called one-price (or “fixed-price”) stores in the 1830s and 1840s. “One price” didn’t mean the same price for the entirety of a store’s stock, as with today’s dollar stores, but rather that each item was tagged with a fixed price and sold for cash, not on credit. Many retailers came to realize that they could sell a greater number of goods by eliminating the vagaries of haggling.
‘For the Million’
Ground-breaking dry goods retailer A.T. Stewart, hoping “to do business for the million,” popularized the one-price system at his Marble Palace in New York, starting in 1846. But shopkeepers had been touting the concept since at least the late 1830s, no doubt motivated by the Panic of 1837 and their need to sell goods as cheaply and efficiently as possible.
They also found that the one-price system was something they could brag about in their advertising. Daniels & Kimball, a dry-goods retailer in New Hampshire, announced the opening of a one-price store in 1838, offering not only a variety of textiles and ready-made articles but also desirable imported goods at prices that were “(to say the least) cheap as the cheapest.” In Charleston, South Carolina, storekeeper C.G. Ketchum advertised “a general Assortment of Seasonable Goods” to be sold “on the most favorable terms” at his one-price store in 1841.
Still, Americans were slow to embrace the fixed-price system, even though buyers and sellers alike agreed that haggling was highly fraught and engendered distrust and anxiety. Merchants described being repeatedly “beaten down” by aggressive customers who aimed to buy as cheaply as possible, regardless of an item’s legitimate worth. If they discounted goods too much, sellers also feared it constituted a “confession of fraud,” an acknowledgment that they had marked prices up exorbitantly in the first place. Buyers often felt like victims of sharp clerks with well-honed bargaining skills, and thought they too often overpaid.
Fixed-price advocates (typically owners of one-price stores) argued that this new system enabled consumers to better comparison shop, because they knew how much competing stores were charging for similar items and could “ascertain and judge of these matters for themselves.” One-price stores were also touted as being more egalitarian, with the same price offered whether buyers were, in the words of an 1840 issue of the Zion’s Herald, “shrewd and brow beating customers,” “easy, confiding, or ignorant,” or even “cunning in the tricks of the trade.”
Retailers instituting one-price systems insisted it was for the benefit of their customers. But it also made great business sense. By eliminating haggling, store owners traded the potential of larger profits on fewer sales for smaller profits on many more sales: By rapidly turning over stock, seemingly meager profits quickly added up.
“To the seller,” explained G.W. Warren, owner of a one-price store in Boston, “greater freedom of action is acquired, and occupies much less time to effect sales. The same amount of goods is sold in a half or two-thirds of the time, and by a less number of persons -- a great saving of expense.” Or, as Chicago dry-goods store owner Francis Clark more succinctly put it in 1846, “Large Sales and Small Profits.”
Perhaps most important, one-price stores let merchants hire unskilled workers who required no knowledge about the stock on hand or bargaining skills to make a sale. Previously, store clerks (mostly men) had been highly skilled in the arts of persuasion, knowing exactly how to pitch their goods to customers to arrive at a favorable price. Due to significant socio-economic shifts -- including the second industrial revolution, which produced a greater number of affordable consumer goods; the spread of department stores throughout the country; and the growing acceptance of women in the workplace -- merchants came to rely on unskilled and primarily female labor in the following decades.
By the end of the 19th century, fixed-price stores were the norm rather than the exception. Bartering and haggling remained in rural pockets of the country well into the 20th century, but today the fixed price has become such an integral part of retailing that, outside of flea markets and car dealers, the idea of negotiating a price seems almost absurd.
(Wendy Woloson is an independent scholar and consulting historian. Her most recent book is “In Hock: Pawning in America from the Revolution to the Great Depression.” The opinions expressed are her own.)
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